During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden insisted that paying your taxes is a patriotic duty. No, scratch that. He said that supporting a tax hike was the American thing to do. "It's time to be patriotic," he told America's putative tax slackers. When asked whether he might be questioning the patriotism of people who don't want higher taxes, Biden, as is his wont, took things to the next rhetorical level. Forget patriotism, insisted Joe, paying higher taxes is a religious obligation.
The man who gave an average of $369 a year to charity over the previous decade fulfills
religious obligations by cutting a tax check -- a check he's required to cut by law.
Now it's always perilous to take Biden's statements too seriously, but it does seem eminently fair to say that his comments reflect a common, if not universal, attitude among Democrats. Taxes aren't a "necessary evil" so much as a joyous affirmation of the possibilities of government and the lifeblood of a more hopeful society. "Taxes are what you pay to be an American" -- like "membership fees," says Democratic language guru George Lakoff.
President Obama merely says that taxes are necessary to "spread the wealth," which is better for everybody. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman frames the issue more reasonably: "Nobody likes paying taxes ... [but] most Americans also care a lot about the things taxes pay for." In other words, paying taxes -- and raising taxes in Krugman's view -- is the adult, serious, morally responsible thing to do. Government needs every last penny, and holdouts must be smoked out.
Now, whatever the best articulation of liberal attitudes toward taxation may be, reasonable people can agree that they inject a lot of moralizing, righteousness and finger-wagging into the issue.
As one leading Democrat put it: "Make no mistake, tax cheaters cheat us all, and the IRS should enforce our laws to the letter."
That Democrat was then-Sen. Tom Daschle in 1998. The same Tom Daschle, we've since learned, who failed to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes for perks he received as one of Washington's most relentless influence-peddlers -- that is, until he realized he might receive a job in the Obama administration spending the money most Americans conscientiously send to Washington.
Daschle's hardly alone. The recently confirmed Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, also failed to pay taxes he owed (even though he surely must have known he owed them) until it became politically expedient to pay them. Now he runs the IRS. Take that, suckers.
Meanwhile, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the supreme tax-writing body in the United States, the House Ways and Means Committee, is under investigation for, among other things, dodging taxes. His excuse for his admitted mistakes is that he was sloppy and ignorant, but not criminal. Geithner and Daschle make similar noises.
But doesn't that miss the point?
When moralizing conservatives get caught, say, cheating on their wives or challenging stall mates to robust Greco-Roman wrestling in airport bathrooms, liberals justifiably howl at the hypocrisy of it all (even though conservative moralizing has no teeth, while the IRS has agents with guns). When liberals fail to pay taxes -- the wellspring of a just society -- it's merely, to borrow an old phrase from Daschle, "sad and disappointing," but ultimately not that big a deal.
When he was still running the Democratic Party, Howard Dean made fighting hypocrisy his top priority. "Hypocrisy is a value that I think has been embraced by the Republican Party. We get lectured by people all day long about moral values by people who have their own moral shortcomings."
Well, I hear a lot of lecturing from Democrats about why I should be ashamed for not liking taxes more because "the children" need it. Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson defended the so-called stimulus bill last week by saying it "shelters the homeless, and heals the sick. It helps us to look forward to a day where we beat our swords into plowshares."
By the Democrats' own logic, not wanting to pay for that is selfish, unpatriotic and immoral. But who do they think tax cheats are cheating?
"I will use whatever position I have in order to root out hypocrisy," Dean promised. "I'm not going to be lectured as a Democrat -- we've got some pretty strong moral values in my party, and maybe we ought to do a better job standing up and fighting for them."
Yes, I would like to see that myself. That would be change I could believe in.